Way before Gamble and Huff sprinkled their magic over The Three Degrees, they were signed to Roulette Records, where they a series of singles and their 1970 album Maybe. Then, five years later, when The Three Degrees were at the height of their popularity, Roulette released So Much Love, a collection of tracks which had been recorded between 1971 and 1973. With covers of Bill Withers’ Who Is She (and What Is She To You), Jimmy Webb’s If You Must Leave My Life and the Stephen Stills’ classic Love the One You’re With, this showcased The Three Degrees vocal talents. Since the release of Maybe and So Much Love, neither album has been rereleased. Now WEA Japan will rectify this, rereleasing Maybe which will be rereleased on 4th February 2014. Maybe marks the start of The Three Degrees journey to one on the most successful female groups of the seventies. The story start at Roulette Records in 1970.

By the time that The Three Degrees signed to Roulette Records in 1970, they were already an established and accomplished group, who’d already honed their vocal style.They’d previously been signed to Swan Records, where Richard Barrett started guiding their career. He was a veteran of the music business, who’d produced and managed artists and groups. A years after forming in 1963, The Three Degrees released singles Gee Baby (I’m Sorry) in 1964, which gave them a minor pop hit, reaching number eighty in the US Billboard 100. Look In My Eyes was then released in 1965. Again, it gave The Three Degrees a minor pop hit, reaching number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 100. Just a year later, Swan folded and was dissolved in 1966. This left The Three Degrees without a label. With Richard Barrett guiding them, The Three Degrees went in search of a new label.

Over the next few years, The Three Degrees released singles for various labels. One of these was Kenny Gamble’s Neptune Records. It released What I See in 1969. Other labels released singles by The Three Degrees, including Bellaphon Records. They released You’re the Fool in 1970, but like What I See, failed to chart. Then in 1970, The Three Degrees landed a contract with Roulette Records.

Now signed to Roulette Records in 1970, there was a minor problem for The Three Degrees. Janet Harmon left just the group. Her replacement was Valerie Holiday. Unfortunately for Janet, it would be her replacement Valerie Holiday who’d enjoy their commercial success three years down the line. Guiding them to success would be Richard Barrett, who would prove a demanding taskmaster. Anything less than perfection wouldn’t do. 

With The Three Degrees signed to Roulette Records, Sheila Ferguson, Fayette Pinkney and new member Valerie Holiday began recording material for their new label. The result of these sessions would be their 1970 album Maybe, which features on covers of familiar tracks, including Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park, Lynn Anderson’s Rose Garden, and Collage which Joe Walsh cowrote. There was also the Hoagy Carmichael classic Stardust. Another cover was a song made famous by The Chantels, Maybe. The Three Degrees version of Maybe would give them their biggest hit so far.

When a new version of Maybe was released as a single, it reached number twenty-four in the US Billboard 100 and number four in the US R&B Charts. Then when their debut album was released, also entitled Maybe, it reached number 136 in the US R&B Charts and number sixteen in the US R&B Charts. It seemed The Three Degrees’ career after seven years of trying, was at last, going places. This was the case, with You’re the One reaching number seventy-seven in the US R&B Charts and number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. The only blip was that Melting Pot failed to chart when released as a single. However, listening to Maybe forty-two years later, it’s no surprise it fared so well. Why was that?

Maybe allows listeners to hear a glimpse of what was still to come from The Three Degrees. The album is a mixture of beautiful ballads and more uptempo numbers. Of the ballads, The Three Degrees version of Stardust is quite simply, breathtakingly beautiful. Their reading of MacArthur Park complete with birdsong and an understated arrangement showcases their considerable vocal talents, with the tightest of heartfelt harmonies. So too does Sugar On Sunday, which The Three Degrees breathe life, meaning and beauty into. Other tracks on Maybe are quite different. 

Collage which opens Maybe, has an almost psychedelic sound. It’s quite unlike what you’d expect from The Three Degrees. Then there’s You’re the One. It’s a much more uptempo track with blazing horns accompanying punchy harmonies and later, an almost rapped vocal. Following a similar pattern, but with more drama is You’re the Fool. Growling horns combine with the tight, dramatic harmonies that soar powerfully and effectively.

The Three Degrees’ cover of Lynn Anderson’s Rose Garden is a revelation. They reinvent the track, resulting in it losing its twee, MOR sound. This is much more like it. Urgent three-part harmonies, rasping horns, wah-wah guitar and even a touch of sass from The Three Degrees. Truly, Maybe features an eclectic selection of quality music, that shows different sides to The Three Degrees. Given the quality of music, it’s neither a surprise that Maybe proved so successful, nor that The Three Degrees reached the heights of critical acclaim and commercial success that they did. However, after the success of Maybe the hits kept coming for The Three Degrees.

The following year, 1971, The Three Degrees were back with a new single Do I Take You. It have The Three Degrees another hit single, reaching number forty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. There’s So Much Love All Around Me was The Three Degrees next single, but it didn’t fare so well, stalling at number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Ebb Tide, which had been covered by The Righteous Brothers. was The Three Degrees only single of 1971 that failed to chart. Despite that, they were making progress. This progress included making a guest appearance in the movie The French Connection, where they appeared as themselves. Indeed, things were looking up for The Three Degrees. Little did they know, that they’d only spend one more year on a smaller label. After that, their fortunes would be transformed.

1972 would be The Three Degrees final full year with Roulette. Two of the singles they released in 1972 included I Wanna Be Your Baby and I Won’t Let You Go. Neither of these singles charted, nor did Roulette get The Three Degrees to record their second album. The reason for this was that Roulette were very much a label who released singles. Given that it’s less expensive and not as time consuming, this makes sense. This must have frustrated The Three Degrees. So when The Three Degrees contract with Roulette ended a year later in 1973, they signed to a label in their home town of Philly, Philadelphia International Records.

Having signed to Philadelphia International Records in 1973, The Three Degrees had a number one single later that year with M.F.S.B. They were Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house band and a successful group in their own right. The number one single was T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia). M.F.S.B. would accompany The Three Degrees on classics like Dirty Ole Man, Year of Decision and When Will I See You Again. During their spell with Philadelphia International Records, The Three Degrees released two successful albums. These were 1973s The Three Degrees, which reached number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Two years later, in 1975, came International, which reached number ninety-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-one in the US R&B Charts. It was when The Three Degrees released International, that Roulette Records sprung a surprise.

As if attempting to cash-in on the success of The Three Degrees, Roulette released So Much Love. This was an album of The Three Degrees’ music from their time Roulette. It was never meant to be an album. Rather it was a collection of singles, B-sides and unissued tracks. It wasn’t a commercial success and failed to chart in the US. In the UK, So Much Love was released as With Love. Elsewhere, Roulette released So Much Love in an attempt to piggyback on the success of International. Having two albums out at the same time, might have confused record buyers and affected sales of International, which didn’t sell as well as The Three Degrees. People who bought So Much Love, were in for another album like Maybe, where ballads and uptempo tracks sat side by side. Although So Much Love was a good album, it didn’t quite match the quality of Maybe. Similarly, 

Maybe is a  it’s a collection of tracks that sit together well. They’re a taste of what was to come from The Three Degrees. Whether it was delivering ballads or more uptempo tracks, they were equally at home. Listening to Maybe, the album shows a group that over the past few years had matured. Through hard work and persistence, The Three Degrees had honed their style. What’s more they’d found what was the classic lineup. Everything was in place for The Three Degrees to enjoy commercial success and critical acclaim.

Looking back at Maybe, it’s no surprise that The Three Degrees would go on to enjoy the success they did. They were ready to make the next step. That meant signing to Philadelphia International Records, where they released the two best and most successful albums of their career, The Three Degrees and International. Gamble and Huff, like they’d done with so many acts that struggled to make a commercial breakthrough, transformed The Three Degrees’ career. Critical acclaim and commercial success worldwide had come their way and they were now enjoying the fruits of their labor, struggle and effort. Maybe which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014, showcases a group on the verge of greatness, commercial success and critical acclaim. 


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